On the Fourth of July, most of us, myself included, get so caught up in the food and party planning that we tend to forget that it’s a day to pay tribute to our country. To that end, I want to look at our great nation through the eyes of the documentary. I’ve done this before, but never a top ten of what I consider to be the most patriotic American documentaries ever made. Everyone has their own idea of how to express devotion to our country; I think these films have done it best. Which, I might add, is not to say that this a list of best films — simply the ones I think best articulate the spirit of ’76, mostly for the better, but also for the worse.

10. Southern Comfort

Against the backdrop of “Bubba” country, the rural environs of Georgia, Southern Comfort tells of the transgender (woman to man) Robert Eads. Dirt poor living in a trailer, Eads is as backwoods American as you could imagine, and yet his/her sexual identity puts Eads out of step with the norm. Few films have so vividly captured the complexity of true American diversity as this one.

9. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

I don’t want to spend too much time on documentaries about war, but it’s hard to neglect how conflict helps to define a country. Errol Morris’ masterpiece is a deconstruction of the Vietnam War, its as-American-as apple-pie architect, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and his eventual admission that the war was a big, bad mistake. This is the story of a country and a man, both of which need to grow from that tragedy.

8. Inside Job

With its last, lingering shot of the Statue of Liberty, Inside Job makes clear that this portrayal of our most recent economic crisis is about more than some greedy individuals, it’s about how the almighty dollar is intertwined with what makes our country what it is.

7. An Inconvenient Truth

A documentary about global warming featuring a politician? Sounds boring. Starring Al Gore? Run for the hills! But, no, here’s a rare example of how documentary can magically turn an elected official into a teacher of what matters most to our planet. When politics, education and caring for our planet can become a sensation, that ought to be honored. If only it happened more often. An Inconvenient Truth gives you a little hope for a political system that could produce a man like Gore.

6. Korengal

Maybe this makes the list partly because I saw it recently, but I don’t think that the power of Sebastian Junger’s gripping portrait of American soldiers stationed on a bleak outpost in Afghanistan will wane. You really feel like you’re looking into these guys’ hearts and minds as they talk frankly about war and their lives. Young Americans fighting for freedom? Not really. They’re just boys caught up in something much bigger than them while they try becoming men.

4. 2016: Obama’s America (tie)

Yikes, I know. I found Dinesh D’Souza’s portrait of Obama’s America to be deceitful and corrupt, but it’s a gripping and necessary reminder that we don’t all see things equally. I doubt D’Souza even believes that Obama hates America the way he says he does in this film. I think D’Souza is creating pure propaganda to wage an ideological war. Which seems like a very American thing to do, actually.

4. Fahrenheit 9/11 (tie)

The same accusation of propaganda could be thrown at Michael Moore, who blasted President Bush and his war in Iraq with every trick in the doc book. The difference, for me, is that, I think, Moore was right. History has certainly proven many of his seemingly out-there accusations to be true. (The recent revelation that the State Department knew that Blackwater was running rogue before they massacred innocent people is just the latest piece of evidence.) Bush’s tricked-up war was a sham, and Moore called him on it. Hate Moore if you will, but he’s a revolutionary of our time. I can hear the fife and drums playing whenever I see him coming.

3. Primary / The War Room / Caucus


One of the great traditions in documentary is the campaign trail film. The seminal Primary, about the Wisconsin primary race between Kennedy and Humphrey by Robert Drew, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock and D A Pennebaker opened a door that would never be closed again to the political process of choosing our elected officials.  Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room showed how Bill Clinton won, revealing the people, drive and idealism necessary to get ahead in politics. And Caucus, about the Republican campaign in Iowa in 2012, carries on the tradition, taking us to the heart of America through a cinéma vérité style that profoundly reveals the humanity of candidates. These films reveal that the election process is both a business and a game, something too often shrouded in pomp, and better off understood.

2. Eyes on the Prize

The 14-hour series about the civil rights movement is a chronicle of what’s been one of the most vital moments in recent American history. First-hand accounts, stunning archival footage and a narrative thread bring it all to life in a way that assures that it won’t be forgotten.

1. The Civil War

Ken Burns is one of our greatest American historians. He’s certainly the greatest nonfiction filmmaker of our past. With Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks and Prohibition, he has helped define and refine various key American chapters. (And don’t count out the recent Central Park Five, about the miscarriage of justice in New York City’s Central Park jogger case — that was as much about America as the rest of them.) But it’s his Civil War that will be the definitive treatment of that most vital juncture in American history.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen